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Sunday, September 27, 2009

From Tubbercurry to Tinseltown

My interview with Dearbhla Walsh in yesterday's Independent

Dearbhla Walsh might be flying high thanks to her Emmy win last Sunday for directing the BBC mini-series Little Dorrit, but this is one woman who refuses to rest on her laurels. Having arrived back in Dublin on Tuesday evening to a rapturous welcome from her family, and further celebrations until the wee hours in the Trocadero restaurant, Dearbhla still managed to be back in work for 10am on Wednesday.

“Life and work gets back to normal very quickly,” she laughs. “I spent all day scouting locations around Dublin. It’s been non-stop, and on top of the jet lag and a hangover, I think I’m fighting a chest infection too.”

That’s not to say that the Sligo-born director isn’t still dazed by her Hollywood success. “It’s unbelievable,” she admits. “It was so strange coming back through Heathrow and seeing my picture all over the British papers, and there’s been so much interest and support here too.”

Now that she mentions it, just how does one get an Emmy award home on a plane? Surely she didn’t just pack it into her check-in luggage? “We were wondering that, because it’s like a weapon,” she says. “The angel’s wings on the statue have spikes on them, and it’s really heavy. We stayed in the Beverley Hilton, so the front desk wrapped the award in bubble-wrap and sellotaped it up in a box.

“At security in LAX, they thought it was a DVD player, and so I would have to unpack it. I said, ‘No it’s not a DVD player, it’s actually an Emmy’, and they went, ‘Oh, ok!’ They let me through and I carried it under my arm all the way to Dublin.”

Being the proud owner of an Emmy award not only boosts her professional profile considerably, it also served as an important party pass in Hollywood last weekend. “It was collateral on Sunday night because we had been told before the ceremony that Tom Courtenay [nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Little Dorrit] and I were not allowed into the HBO party because we were the competition against their nominated series, Generation Kill,” she reveals.

“But after I won, and I was backstage, the head of BBC Drama said, ‘you are going to the HBO party’, so it makes a big difference arriving there with an Emmy in my hand. The first person I bumped into was Dianne Wiest, who stopped me, saying, ‘Congratulations, it’s so exciting. It’s great for a female director to win’. It was surreal. I had to pinch myself and think, ‘Quick, take a picture!’”

Dearbhla freely admits that while walking to the podium to collect the prize, she found herself reflecting on just she got from Tubbercurry to Tinsel Town. The truth of the matter is that it took Dearbhla the best part of 20 years to achieve overnight success.

While studying Communications in DCU, Dearbhla got her first experience in the business as a runner on the RTE talent show, Screen Test (“The X Factor of the ‘80s”, as she calls it).

However, like the majority of young people of her generation, Dearbhla had few employment prospects upon graduation.”It was 1988, and there was no work,” she recalls. “I signed up for a FAS unemployment course in film, and soon got called for an interview with Granada TV in Manchester, where I worked there for three years editing trailers for film and TV programmes.”

To her own surprise, Dearbhla then landed a place on RTE’s producer-director course, and worked there for three years in young people’s and arts programming, before leaving the station to go freelance.

“I was trying to get into drama for ages and couldn’t because all those jobs went to English directors,” she says. “So I went to Australia for a wedding, and ended up staying for seven months. Of course, when you stop knocking on the door, opportunity comes calling, and I got called back to work on an RTE-BBC co-production, Custer’s Last Stand Up (2001).

“That won a Bafta award, which brought me on to EastEnders and Shameless, and luckily since then I haven’t stopped working. It’s been a long slog with very little glamour in it, so going to the Emmys was a nice reward.”

During her acceptance speech last weekend, Dearbhla also jubilantly thanked her partner, the RTE presenter and journalist Anna Nolan, quipping that “they’re will be there of us in the bed tonight”.

It was quite a saucy remark to make on American network television. “It probably was,” she laughs. “But I just said it in the heat of the moment. I really didn’t expect the night to go that way.”

Dearbhla prefers not to publicly talk about her seven-year relationship with the one-time Big Brother star, but she does reveal how the glamorous pair first met. “We worked together on her series Ask Anna,” she explains, adding with a smile: “So I asked Anna, and she said yes.”

It seems there will be plenty of more people saying ‘yes’ to Dearbhla from now. “My agent called me today to say a film script had come in for me,” she says. “I’ll have a read of that at the weekend and proceed from there.

“I had gone out to LA two days before the Emmys and did lots of meetings with companies like Miramax, HBO and Scott Free. After the ceremony, there were a lot of messages from people saying, ‘we must find something we can work on together’.

“Anyway, I’m in full employment until April with a four part serial for the BBC called The Silence, which will be filmed in and around Dublin at Christmas time. We’ll see what happens after that. It’s nice that the phone is suddenly ringing and it’s not my bank manager!”

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